Sunday, April 26, 2009

Meant To Be

I'm borrowing this story. Read on and you'll see why.

The setting was the rural deep south, a car winding along a dark road in the hollows of the Appalachian foothills. The driver was a young woman, Sarah, taking her relatives home after a trip to church. Her passengers were Eva, we'll call her, and Eva's son Charlie.

Eva was a widow. She'd been married to Irvine for 60 years when he passed quietly, the way he had lived. She was elderly, her health fading. This was cause for concern. And that concern would be Charlie.

Charlie, himself an old man then, had been born with disabilities. These were people who handled their own problems, for better or worse. Charlie had always lived at home, worked with his father on the farm. They were salt of the earth, sharecroppers. He went to school some, but mainly stayed close to home. People told Eva and Irvine to send him away. They refused. They taught him what they could, how to get by, with their help. Took him to church every time the doors opened. Still, he was dependent.

Now, with Irvine gone, and Eva fading more each day, relatives were increasingly worried. Proud people, working hard at their own jobs and raising families themselves, just getting by, they didn't know what they would do when, well, the worst happened. Charlie was an only child. Eva and Irvine had no siblings left. The family was small and resources were limited. Family members were doing all they could to help.

But Charlie had been nearly inconsolable when Irvine passed. He wouldn't make it when Eva died. It was all too much to even consider.

Sarah had taken Charlie and Eva to a church singing that evening. They were winding home along the hollows. Eva loved singings. Irvine used to take her, driving for miles in the ramshackle pickup. Sarah was happy to help, when she could. She loved the singings too.

The night was unseasonably chilly, but Sarah wasn't worried. She'd grown up in those gentle hills. Although she was not driving her usual route, still, this was her home turf. She had wanted to get them all home earlier, it's true, but her aunt had been in such a good mood, lingering to talk to some of the gospel singers, some in the audience too. People she'd not seen in a while, since Irvine's death two years before sent her into a sad slump.

Eva was happy tonight. So, because of that, Charlie was too. They left the church on a high note.

So they drove, listening to Eva hum old hymns, the car headlights fashioning a path of warm gold for them just ahead through the mists cascading heavily now over the night-blackened hills.

It happened in a blink of an eye.

Sarah didn't understand. They had been moving and now they were stone still. The rush of the wind outside the car was replaced by silence. And then a moan. Eva. She was calling Charlie's name.

Finally the horror surfaced, pulverizing the merciful numbing shock. The car was tilted, almost at a 90-degree angle. It had left the road somehow. They were alive, but hurt. At night, in the cold, in the middle of nowhere, in the days before cell phone nation.

Sarah felt hysteria rise in her throat, frantically fighting the urge scream. Was that gasoline she smelled? Could she get out of her seatbelt and get to Charlie in the back? He wasn't moving, speaking. Eva was still, too, but whimpering.

Suddenly, Charlie started to stir. Then twist and pull, trying to get out of his seatbelt. The car was pushed in and mangled, Sarah sensed any further movement could make the situation worse. She was panicking, yelling now, begging him to calm down. God help us, she cried us, over and over. God please help us.

And then it happened. Sarah heard a voice. Someone else was in the car. The soft, gentle, masculine voice of a man they all three had known and loved all their lives.

It was Irvine. He was in the car, with them.

The fear, shock and pain went away, replaced by calm and relief. The four sat throughout the long, cold night, waiting for the first rays of sun to break through the mountain tops and dense trees.

And finally another car came over the hill and around the curve where the black ice had melted. The ice that earlier had formed in silent treachery over the road surface, sending Sarah's vehicle careening off the blacktop, flipping several times before coming to rest against a tree. On the passenger side, where Eva had been sitting in the front seat. And Charlie behind her.

Rescue workers were summoned. Sarah was hospitalized briefly for observation, with minor injuries only. Eva and Charlie were gone by the time the sun came up. Their injuries were profound, doctors said a quick rescue response would not have saved them. And of course, no one else was found in the car.

At the funeral, Sarah was quiet, sad, but at peace. She had been assured there was nothing she could have done to prevent the accident and what followed. She had cared for her dearly loved aunt as best she could for years. It took several years for her to relay the story of the night in the car to the man who told it to me.

True to her character, Sarah was not effusive or emotional in her description of what followed the accident, the hours in the car.

She said she was beginning to panic and was praying out loud when she heard Irvine's voice. He actually spoke very little, which had always been his way. He talked to them quietly, about simple things, the things that mattered, the life they had spent together, their love for each other.

Irvine had come to comfort his family through the last hours of their life in a car that wrecked on a dark cold night. And then, as though it had always been meant to be, he took them home.

A man who had always claimed he was an atheist told this story to me. But with tears in his eyes and his voice breaking, he admitted he believed every word of it, despite the supernatural elements. Partly because he knew the principals, good country people not prone to fibbing or hyperbole. But mainly because, in the narrative that defied scientific rationalization, he recognized the clear, high struck sound of truth.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

More Than A Movie

On my last visit with my father, he wanted to see Kevin Costner's "Dances with Wolves." I was floored. My father was an action man, he considered movies a waste of time.

Plus, his eyesight was failing him. He had just turned 80, and although very strong physically, had senile macular degeneration. He could not see directly in front of him, only his peripheral vision worked. But he wanted to go to "Dances," something about the buffalo and wide open vistas of the West.

Another thing, he wanted to pick up my niece, L. What? This man who insisted that his children go to school unless we were practically in the hospital? But I complied, going to L.'s teacher and blurting out his request. I had grown up with this woman. She laughed and said "no problem." L. was thrilled. She got out of school before lunch to go to the movies!

So, my father took one arm and my 10-year-old niece the other as I made my way from the bright lobby into the dark, nearly deserted theater. I actually couldn't see, but shuffled to a row and settled them in on either side of me. One questioned me about this, the other about that, and I explained the scenes on the huge screen as best I could.

And I was mesmerized. I would never have gone to this film on my own initiative. I've never cared for Westerns. But there were many layers to this tale about inadvertent Union Army hero Lt. John Dunbar, whose assignment to a remote outpost in the wilderness of the Dakota territory changes him forever.

It was a wonderful afternoon. I had often roamed with my father as a child through woods and fields, on hunting trips, through small towns exploring. But this was the first time we had been to a movie together since I was a very small child and we saw "The Story of Moses" at the drive-in at my mother's request.

My visit home, from Washington, D.C., in May of 1991, also was noteworthy for something my father said. This man loved to talk, and would do so with or without a conscious audience. He drove me crazy asking what I thought about, say, South Africa sanctions before I'd had a chance to pour a cup of coffee in the morning. But he rarely discussed the personal. Feelings were taboo, or at least, not interesting to him.

But on that visit, out of the blue, he told me he regretted not enjoying his children more when we were growing up. That he had been too wrapped up in making a living and allowed precious moments to slip away.

Age had mellowed him a bit, but he was volatile when my siblings and I were growing up. He was raised on a farm and probably shouldn't have left that life. He wore a suit and worked behind a desk even though he craved the outdoors. He could be the happiest person in the room or the gloomiest, and we never understood what would set off his moods.

So, when he talked about regrets, again I was floored. For the second time that visit. Because this was the closest thing to an apology I'd ever heard from my father. I didn't realize at the time how significant it was, that comment, the movie, the entire visit.

Because soon my time at home was over, and I was on a plane back to my life. Quickly these things slipped from my thoughts. And then two months later, on a Saturday morning in July, 1991, I got the call from my little sister. The one that stops time. The one you never forget.

I sat with wet hair in a white terry cloth robe, on my bed, phone to my ear. I stared out over a mass of treetops, watching planes approach National Airport just over the river in Arlington, VA. Hundreds of miles to the south in my hometown, my father had been hit by a car. He had been crossing the road after his regular morning coffee session at the "liar's table" with his friends at their favorite restaurant.

It was bad. He'd been airlifted to the hospital. It didn't look good.

He died before I could get home.

There are imponderables, still, about that day. Why did my father stop in the median, appear to see the approaching car, but then run full speed into that vehicle? A friend, who shook hands with my father and watched him walk away, saw the accident. Then at his funeral, why did two people choose then to tell me they had seen him walking too close to the road several times? He was stubborn, chaining him down would have worked, maybe. But if we had known, we could have had a chance to intervene. Maybe.

And sometimes I wish I had gotten the chance to say goodbye. I was in the air when my mother, abiding by my father's wishes, made the decision to turn off the phalanx of medical equipment keeping him artificially alive. The internal injuries were massive, his brain was destroyed, there was no hope. My sister talked some about his last hours in the hospital, so maybe being spared those images was a gift. I've never talked about any of this with my mother. We don't discuss these things.

Maybe because of this, though, every year the month of April lurks in silent menace. When it arrives, I count off the days until the 20th, his birthday.

For years I had a recurring dream: I was falling from the top of a cliff, the fall seemed to go on forever, in terrifying detail. But just before I hit bottom, my father stepped out from nowhere and caught me. Safe.

I haven't had that dream in a very long time. I guess it's gone.

But on his birthday, I watch our movie. Seeing it brings back our last great adventure and gives me some idea about where my father has gone, at least in spirit. I see a strong, brave man on a horse heading off into vast unexplored territory. The vista is one of big sky, big land. He's just gone on ahead.

And then I cry myself to sleep.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Cotton Fields Back Home

I read a blog the other day by a poster who was trying to meet new friends after a move. This involved finding common interests via the internet, then getting together in person.

The entry generated some sympathetic comments. I had nothing useful to add and did not post. But the subject sent my mind, and senses, into an irresistible bout of time-shifting. It was a cold, nasty day, after all. And I needed warmth. So I found it, in my mind, in north Alabama's rich red cotton fields. Goodness, how long ago. Half a century.

It was the late 1950s and we had moved to the Tennessee River Valley. My father built a house in the middle of a cotton field. And five days a week he put on a suit and a brimmed hat and commuted into the city to work, leaving my mother with three small children and no relatives or neighbors to speak of, at that point. We were in a tiny, very insular farming community where people had known each other all their lives.

Mother took us to church every time the doors were open. But it wasn't enough. She was lonely.

So she reached out in the only way she knew. Mother was raised on a tobacco farm and had never picked cotton. But she was no stranger to hard work. With her son in school, she got a sitter for her younger daughter, sewed a little sack for me from a netted grapefruit and attached a cloth strap. And off we went.

Cotton pickers for hire. No experience. In search of friends.

In Texas I'd left behind my best and only friend. I didn't understand what was happening when this little girl held onto our car door, her face inches from mine, sobbing. My mother insisted, "We're just going on vacation, we'll be back." She knew better than to set me off, her theatrical child.

She didn't buy it. This girl, a year or so older than me, was losing her near-constant companion and absolute servant. Her family owned a general store next door. Our long days of play were halted only by the welcome interruption of lunch at her place. In the store, at a small kitchen table behind the meat counter, we wolfed down excellent sandwiches. I especially remember the bologna and cheese, thick slabs of meat and dairy slapped together with mayo. Washed down with icy Dr. Pepper straight from the cold drink box.

All too soon, those days were over. My father was taking us to Alabama where he'd gotten a better job. It was closer to home for my parents, whose Middle Tennessee families had not understood the move to Texas, which then became the place where my sister and I were born. And that was enough, it was time to go home, or close enough.

On that last day, Mrs. H. took her time in pulling her grieving daughter away. She was upset too. Maybe she wanted my parents to own the sadness they had delivered with this move. And she probably did not approve of the fib my mother told. I remember smiling intensely, as we pulled away, waving hard, trying to get my friend to buck up.

I never saw her again.

Unlike in Texas, we had no neighbors in our new home, no general store next door. In the back, we had lush woods that I would grow to love, my refuge. And more woods across the road in front. Scary woods that gave shelter to howling coyotes and wildcats that made their way down from the small mountains ringing the entire vista.

And we had cotton fields, masses of stalks rising from fields like a vast stick army. They start out green, then flower and produce bolls. As the fiber matures, the plant dries out and the cotton bursts forth in soft pods of white puff that hold seeds. By the time we arrived in Alabama, machines had started harvesting some fields. But laborers still picked smaller fields and also combed the remnants left behind by machines.

The pay was minuscule for pulling the white fluff from rows with gloved hands and sending it tumbling through the holes of the bags strapped across our chests.

The work was grinding, hot, strength-sapping. Unless you were there on a mission, like my mother, or a lark like me.

Segregation was still in full force then. But in the cotton fields, the races easily worked side by side. Talk flowed, a necessary distraction from the tedium, the sweat. Oldtimers gave tips for preserving soft hands and keeping the sacks from tangling. Jokes were told. The occasional dirt clod flew after the school bus dropped off more pickers. Cotton field flirtations swelled and fell apart.

All were equal in the cotton field. At least for those few hours.

I was young, so my exhilaration soon ebbed. My mother would be on a roll, so her solution was simple. She let me crawl into the bottom of her sack.

The voices of my mother and her cohorts in the cotton soon lulled me to sleep. A bit of song here, a scrap of scripture, the soft scrape of the bag being pulled on the soil. Laughter rising, the sweet-smelling cotton floating down on top of me, bit by bit as I rode curled into a ball inside a bag being gently pulled down one row and then another.

At the end of the day, we hauled our sacks to a big truck to be hoisted onto a hook for weighing. The farmer announced the weights and fished out pay from an old cigar box. Everyone wanted the big haul. One perpetual winner was C.S., a teenage girl who could outpick any man on the field. I loved the days she showed up to pick. Her weigh-ins launched endless rounds of taunts, shouts and laughter.

But even the littlest picker got a chance to participate in my favorite part of the cotton harvest. Something I conjure up in detail when things in this life get a bit rougher than I would like.

Back then, the big kids demonstrated our end-of-picking celebration. I watched, then came my turn.

I climbed the slats to the very top of the truck side and dropped inside a few rungs, facing out. Next I carefully climbed back up, balancing on the top rail. When I got the signal that all was clear, I took a springing jump, like a backwards swan dive, although stopping short. My body stayed perfectly straight, arms flung out wide, legs rigid, toes pointed. I kept my eyes fastened tight to Alabama's big, blue sky.

And I fell back into the big, soft, warm mass of cotton that we had all just gathered. Fell and bounced and fluttered my arms and legs to burrow in deep. And to take in that scent.

Because the smell that covered me was something no manner of alchemy can ever get close to -- deep sweet softness melded with the sun, the sky, the rain and of course that rich red earth.

I tell people sometimes that I picked cotton as a child. And usually they recoil in surprise. But we dug into our new town in a way I doubt would have been possible if my mother had not taken the land's measure and decided to go to the cotton fields. We were truly of that place -- whatever it took, whatever came our way, we belonged.

And at the end, when my life is passing before my mind's eye as they say, I'm pretty sure I can predict at least one scene: I'll be climbing the wooden slats of a big truck filled with soft white cotton, breathing the sweet smell in deep, getting ready, pushing off hard, arms spread wide...